Sen. Obama and the Racial Divide

A colleague whose opinion I value on matters of race, religion and culture, recently made a revealing observation concerning the overheated rhetoric of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor. It is not the snippets of his sermons that are shocking, he said. It is the fact that anyone would be surprised by his words. Here we have proof of how far removed is the American media from the homiletic reality of what goes on each Lord’s Day in many of this nation’s mainstream African-American churches.

"I heard this kind of stuff all the time in the Atlanta church where I grew up," my friend tells me.

The idea that there is a divide between black Americans and white Americans should come as no revelation to anyone. Senator Obama acknowledged as much in his speech wherein he made a valiant effort to put into perspective the pain and humiliation of a certain generation of black men in this country.

One need not be a progressive Democrat to see the deep suspicion that exists on the part all too many whites towards blacks, and the reverse. What all sane Americans seek, without regard to race, is a society that tends toward harmony, rather than division. And this is precisely why the rhetorical excesses of the pastor of the man who has sat under his tutelage for many years and who now hopes to occupy the White House rightly concern us. For if Sen. Obama is successful, we can anticipate a raft of policy initiatives aimed at remedying this admitted divide in accord with the Senator’s own religious formation.

Any effort toward an authentic understanding of civil rights should heal social conflict, not promote and extend it. This proposition seems so evident as to not even require mention. But a look at the tradition in which the Senator stands — even when this tradition speaks with the gentlest of language and no doubt the best of intentions — reveals a great potential for further fracturing of our society.

Today, the word "discrimination" has come to be seen as grounds for arbitrating virtually every political and economic complaint that one person has against another, whether in employment or public accommodations. When even the slightest social snub can be the occasion for adjudication, it is easy to see how the kind of approach represented by progressive activists, which put politics center stage, promotes division rather than social harmony.

In many ways our society is far more racially and ethnically fragmented than it was 30 years ago. All too often now, the battle for civil rights resembles the children’s game "King of the Mountain" where the goal is to achieve social status through any means possible and hold on to it as long as one is able. When whole societies play the game, the process can be capricious and costly, and the end result is often political, social, and cultural fracturing.

Sen. Obama hit on the central issue when he said that we all need to realize that "that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams."

Under what conditions do the gains of some come at the expense of others? When they occur via the apparatus of coercion and compulsion of the regulatory state, the welfare state, and the social-engineering state. Here the gains of some come at the expense of others, sometimes directly through taxation and sometime indirectly through bailouts and privileges. African Americans benefit at the expense of white Americans, and it is also true that white Americans benefit at the expense of African Americans.

The path to the social peace we all favor, then, is not through further politicization but through liberalization of social and economic life. We need to be free to cooperate. The compulsion of political management is not an example of such voluntary cooperation.

It is time for this child’s play to come to an end and it is cause for lament that Sen. Obama did not seize the chance to promote a higher degree of social peace than we have seen in recent years. Although he called for us to "move beyond some of our old racial wounds," he immediately identified with the kinds of approaches that have deepened those wounds. He is pushing a solution that will make problems worse.

What is needed is what a previous generation took for granted: a social logic and shared moral consensus to evaluate our current dilemmas and a common grammar for debate. More importantly, we need a structural change in our society that puts a higher value on human volition and civil society and a diminishment of the role of state and political influences. Only when we have begun with a unified foundation can we reach mutual understanding on what constitutes fairness and justice in our civil and economic relations.